Keira Knightley steps into a formidable character
Keira Knightley plays the title role of Tolstoy's tragic heroine in "Anna Karenina."
"Anna Karenina" star Keira Knightley's first film with director Joe Wright was 2005's "Pride & Prejudice," with Rosamund Pike, left.
Joe Wright also directed Keira Knightley and James McAvoy in 2007's "Atonement."
A meeeting in London changed director Joe Wright's thinking on the staging of "Anna Karenina," starring Keira Knightley.
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TORONTO -- Both are iconic female characters, but Keira Knightley found playing Elizabeth Bennet more daunting than navigating 19th-century Russian society as Anna Karenina.
Both roles had been portrayed by other notable actresses, but Ms. Knightley says, "I think it was more frightening to take on Elizabeth Bennet in 'Pride & Prejudice' because she's so loved and women see themselves as her.
"I don't think Anna is the same thing in that way. She's not somebody that you go, 'Oh, that's me' or 'I'm in love with her.' She's this kind of strange curiosity, and because of that, because she's always slightly over there, I think it was less frightening."
However, the 27-year-old actress found that a decade's distance had changed how she viewed the character in Leo Tolstoy's novel about doomed love, scorn and scandal in an image-obsessed society, and, ultimately, tragedy. After all, one character passes judgment on Anna this way: "I'd call on her if she'd only broken the law. She broke the rules."
The first time Ms. Knightley read the 800-page book, she was in her teens.
"I remember it as being this kind of amazing, beautiful romance and very sweeping, and I read it again last summer and went, this is really different. This is not how I remember it at all."
In fact, she thought Tolstoy hated Anna at certain points, really hated her, which she didn't recall from her introduction to the text.
The movie, still in limited release and also starring Jude Law as her cuckolded husband and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the dashing cavalry officer who becomes the object of her desire, arrives in Pittsburgh today at AMC-Loews at the Waterfront and Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill.
This past weekend, it averaged $12,602 at each of the 66 theaters where it was playing; that was more than "Silver Linings Playbook," "Lincoln" and the final installment of "Twilight."
Over a cup of coffee with three reporters during the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Ms. Knightley happily talked dancing, dresses and, of course, death. After all, Anna is a vain creature, a beautiful bird in a cage.
The heroine's face is, increasingly, masked by heavy lace netting. Fur collars and bird feathers are reminders of death and most of her jewelry -- save for one ruby the color of blood -- are diamonds, the hardest known natural substance.
"We wanted that constant feeling of being trapped," said the actress, who consulted with costume designer Jacqueline Durran, the very one who created the nearly backless, floor-length emerald gown she wore in "Atonement."
A highlight this time is a sumptuous jet-black taffeta gown, with an aubergine tone underneath, worn at a ball where Anna steals the spotlight. It's accented with $2 million worth of diamonds on loan from Chanel for the shoot.
"A lot of the lines of the dresses were based on lingerie, so you're then bringing sex and death in, and covered up, the face again is the cage," she said. A scene in which she furiously fans herself represents the beating of a bird's heart or its panic at being caught in a room where it thumps against the windows.
Fashionably clad this day in a red velvet cap-sleeve dress with a nipped waist, Ms. Knightley recalled the metamorphosis of the movie project reuniting her with director Joe Wright.
He made "Pride & Prejudice," which earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress (it was Reese Witherspoon's year for "Walk the Line") and later "Atonement," a shattering story of Brits caught in the aftermath of a single devastating lie.
"When we first started talking about it, it was going to be a completely naturalistic telling of it. And we were going to go to Russia, and we were going to shoot mainly in St. Petersburg and around there and then, we started talking about it more, he was really getting into a more stylized version," she recalled.
The filmmaker telephoned her in Los Angeles, where she was making another movie, and asked that when she returned to London, she "come around straight away because there's something I need to tell you."
His entire office was covered in "amazing drawings of this strange theater," and her initial "Oh no!" yielded to "OK" and then "Oh! Yes!" Much of the story unfolds in a majestic old theater this time around.
He took a page from Orlando Figes' book, "Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia," which suggests that in the ballrooms and salons of St. Petersburg, Russians performed their European manners almost like actors on a public stage.
"You're doing something that's been done so many times before and it's with a team who've worked together a lot. You have got to try to push the boundaries, you've got to try and do something a bit different, because why wouldn't you?" she asked.
"I think the worst that could happen is we fail but we'll fail together, so let's give it a go. Which is a nice sentiment," Ms. Knightley said of this rendition, with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, to boot.
Although it only consumes minutes on screen, a dizzying dance scene took two or three 14-hour days to shoot in a studio that proved a perfect incubator for germs.
"Everybody got sick. Aaron, by the last day, was actually literally running off to puke. He was like sick, sick, sick. Also, because we were shooting over winter in England, it was cold. We were in the studio the whole time, there's no air going. It just went 'round, everybody constantly. Everyone was sick on that one."
Belgian-born Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who has worked with theaters, opera houses and ballet companies, choreographed the centerpiece dance.
"I think a lot of the stylized vision came from Joe having seen his work, being very inspired by what you could do with movement. So he got him to create this waltz that would equally tell the story -- yin and yang melding type thing -- which took us all about a month to learn and was incredibly complex but looks amazing."
Anna is equally complex, more so than Lizzie in "Pride & Prejudice" or Cecilia Tallis in "Atonement."
"The characters are quite straightforward, in a way. That's not to undermine them, but with Elizabeth Bennet, she is so wonderful. Of course, she's flawed, but you just fall in love with her."
As for her character in the world of wealth and privilege in 1935 England in "Atonement," she says, "It's like she's incredibly pent up, but it's because she's been keeping everything there, and it's just all waiting to come out."
With Anna, she's not sure whether to like her or hate her.
"I don't know if she's being held up there for people to go, this is the whore of Babylon, this is the worst thing in the entire world, or whether you're meant to go, this is the innocent, this is the victim. And the answer is both."
First Published November 30, 2012 12:00 am